As we roll towards the 2018 AFL season, many storylines begin to take shape.
Paddy McCartin needs to make a statement at St Kilda and claim the #1 forward spot, Taylor Walker has some demons to exorcise after Adelaide’s capitulation in the 2017 Grand Final, and Port Adelaide has recruited the players it believes will push them towards a flag. And then there’s the comeback that West Coast Eagles supporters are salivating over. Nic Naitanui returns to football after more than 12 months out of the game with a ruptured ACL.
The Eagles knocked the highly-fancied Port Adelaide out of the finals in dramatic fashion in 2017. Luke Shuey’s match-winning goal in extra time, and the courage displayed by Eric Mackenzie as he slammed into the behind post to save what looked like a certain Power score just minutes before are moments that will forever be remembered by Eagles’ supporters. The return of NicNat for the 2018 season should, in theory, propel them further into the finals.
But will it?
When looking at the best players in the finals win, the Eagles have lost a bit of firepower. Matt Priddis has hung the boots up, and following him into retirement are Sam Mitchell and Drew Petrie. In the win over the Power, those three were amongst the Eagles’ best players. It’ll be up to players like Andrew Gaff and Elliot Yeo to take another step and become the leaders the club needs them to be. And a lot is resting on the shoulders of their returning ruckman.
The expectations on Naitanui are somewhat unfair. Knee reconstructions are not the kind of injuries that allow you immediately pick up where you left off. Even when fit to play again, it’s rare that players are able to recapture the form they had prior. Their return to form takes time, and it’s time West Coast cannot afford. For Naitanui; a man who relies on athleticism as a huge part of his game, the expectations may be a little too high.
2012 was the last time Naitanui really impressed. His All-Australian selection is the only accolade the big man has achieved in the AFL, unless you’re also counting his 2015 Mark of the Year award. Naitanui was named in the ruck in the 2012 AA team, despite not even being the best ruckman on his own team. That honour went to Dean Cox.
Cox was the best big man of his generation and was the engine room for West Coast in 2012, with Naitanui playing back up. It’s fair to say the Eagles were anticipating big things from NicNat once Cox retired at the conclusion of the 2014 season. The All-Australian selection was supposed to the first of many, yet it remains his only one.
It’s difficult to justify the kind of scrutiny Jack Watts was placed under at Melbourne for so many years when you look at the relatively free ride Naitanui has been afforded by the media and the football public. When you look at facts and figures, Naitanui has simply failed to deliver. He has been the same player since 2010.
Naitanui Disposals 2009-17
Numbers do not lie, and they do not work in favour of NicNat. He averaged 3.00 marks in 2012; the highest of his career. The All-Australian ruckman with just three marks per game. In contrast, Dean Cox, picked as the forward pocket on that team, averaged 6.00. Cox averaged three more disposals per game and a couple more hitouts, but was relegated to the forward pocket despite kicking only 28 goals.
Naitanui’s selection as All-Australian ruckman was dubious at best, and had a definite ripple-effect. It meant that genuine small forwards like Eddie Betts, then at Carlton, missed a deserved All-Australian berth. Betts had 48 goals in the forward pocket for the Blues in 2012, yet Dean Cox was considered a better option. Cox should’ve been selected in the spot he was best suited to, and played best in for the year – the ruck. Naitanui should’ve been left out, and Eddie Betts should’ve had another deserved AA selection to his name. Even Naitanui’s best season was not that great.
2018 will be year nine in Naitanui’s AFL career. In the eight previous seasons, his only consistent statistical improvement has been hit outs, as you’d expect in a competition slowly moving away from the “dinosaur” ruckman and toward a more mobile big man. In many other statistical categories, he’s stagnated, or gone backwards. At no stage has he legitimately dominated a series of games. He is a cameo actor in a role that requires a lead.
Naitanui Disposals/marks per year
Given this, it’s strange that he manages to avoid criticism, and is still looked at as the lynch-pin to West Coast remaining a finals team. His career averages of 12.1 disposals and 1.9 marks per game are surely not enough to propel West Coast into a preliminary final any time soon. In that case, what is it about his return that has Eagles fans salivating?
Clearances would be the number one reason. Naitanui is like a wave at stoppages. He starts rolling forward and, when the ball cooperates with him, his momentum and sheer size drag the contest along with him. He is as adept at taking the ball out of the ruck and throwing it on his boot as anyone, can thump it a forward thirty metres in the ruck, and has a burst of speed from stoppages when he takes possession.
But it’s the intangibles that seem to add to the NicNat mystique. He seems to bob up at crucial moments in games, taking big marks, or kicking big goals. He’s a bigger, stronger version of Cyril Rioli, only even more inconsistent, and has never done it on the big stage. Whilst Cyril walked away with the 2015 Norm Smith Medal to add to his premiership medallion, Naitanui ended the day with four touches. In the biggest game of his life, NicNat didn’t show up. The mitigating factor here is that Naitanui’s mother passed away the previous month. Still, he was able to perform a lot better in both the Qualifying and Preliminary Finals in the preceding weeks. When it mattered most, he was nowhere to be seen.
Like Rioli, Naitanui is a player who can affect the game when he doesn't receive a stat as a reward. He tackles very well for a ruckman with a career average of 3.53 per game (almost double his career average for marks), and when he has a head of steam, he is a hard man to stop.
His appeal to youngsters cannot be disputed. NicNat also appeals to fans who are influenced more by a highlight reel than those who concentrate and watch the entire game. Many see the clips of the high mark and are drawn to the spectacle that is the game of Naitanui. He has kicked a goal after the siren to sink North Melbourne in 2013 that is fondly remembered, and also kicked a goal in 2016 to put the Eagles in front of the Giants with nine seconds remaining, but the highlights do not outweigh the remainder of the games where is influence is negligible. He’s an easy player to cheer because his highs are so high, it’s easy to forget the lows.
Naitanui has a lot of work to do, and not just in terms of recovery from his injury. He turns 28 during the 2018 season, and will probably be closer to 29 by the time his body allows him to do the things West Coast fans are expecting of him. He’s no longer the young star of the team with years to develop. Every year he’s failed to deliver since 2012 has edged him one more year towards irrelevancy. It’s a trajectory he needs to arrest.
So, how do the Eagles give Naitanui every chance to succeed in 2018? Do they play him in the ruck as long as he can handle it? Only Sam Jacobs, Aaron Sandilands and Paddy Ryder can match him body-to body, and if his leap returns, only Ryder can compete with him in the air. Do you throw him forward and hope that he can top his career-high three marks per game and kick more goals than his career-high 1.09 per game? If you’re Adam Simpson, that’s about all you can do. You can’t ask him to be more than he’s been. After this injury, the reality is that we may have already seen his best.
Naitanui is as charismatic as they come. He is one of the most recognizable players in the competition and is adored by Eagles’ fans, and fans of the spectacular side of the game, but he’s got to do more to deserve the kind of adulation he receives.
West Coast has not claimed a flag since 2006, and in their one chance to do so since, NicNat failed to deliver. If Dean Cox was the five star meal of ruckmen in his day, the early days of Nic Naitanui promised that was going to be at least a hearty steak. Sadly, to this point, all they’ve received is the sizzle.